I remember when Enter the Matrix was announced, the disappointment voiced by players and critics alike when they discovered they couldn’t play as Neo was extremely strong. After all, why play minor characters like Ghost or Niobe, regardless of the different ways you could play, when you could be Neo, the prophesied savior of the human race? While that might not have been the downfall of that title, it definitely wasn’t the experience that everyone expected. So you can just imagine how exciting it is to get another chance at exploring the Matrix, but this time through the eyes of The One. Prepare to take the red pill, fellow readers, as we get ready for The Matrix: Path of Neo.
Obviously, with a game that pulls its source material from a trilogy (and a separately released prequel disc) as well as a name like Path of Neo, you’d expect that the storyline would follow the plot of the movie exactly. Well, you’d be about half right. The story behind Path of Neo is much more like an remix of all four films, with narrative taken and pieced together from quickly edited cutscenes that re-examines every step of Neo’s journey from hapless hacker mindlessly plugged into the Matrix into digital messiah. Even hardcore fans of the movie franchise will find themselves lost as the game presents a completely new spin on the war between the humans and the machines -- namely, this concept is much more of a background reference.
At first, you’ll lead Thomas A. Anderson, or Neo, through some pivotal moments from the first movie, such as the phone call he receives from Morpheus and his escape from the Agents. Yes, I know that in the actual film Neo doesn’t make it down to Trinity and ride off to meet Morpheus, but Path of Neo takes a revisionist look at a number of sections from the film. Acting as more of a “What if,” Path of Neo draws out this getaway to include more sneaking around cubicles, climbing the ledges of the building and finally making a break for the street as the Agents close in. Much more of a story building level than an actual facet of play, nevertheless it provides you with a sense that the game has many more changes in store from the movie that you remember.
From there, you’ll start to get a sense of how many of your moves go via the training programs. In the film, you were simply to Neo remarking that “he knew Kung Fu,” but here, you actually go on through some of the programs themselves, becoming acquainted with the combat system. The fighting mechanics appear extremely simplistic, but combined with modifier buttons can become extremely complex. You are given a button to evade incoming attacks like swung weapons, punches and kicks. This can be boosted with well-timed jumps, allowing you the option to counterattack opponents when the option presents itself. You have a basic and a strong attack, which can be used to set up light combos and killing blows. You’ll also be able to augment this with the use of Focus, which allows Neo to enter bullet time and perform superhuman moves. For instance, using Focus and the evade button can allow Neo to bend out of the way of bullets, while Focus and the strong attack might allow him to run up an opponent and kick them in the head (similar to the move performed in the lobby scene in the first movie).
Each move that you pull is based on environmental factors and what you happen to have around you. For instance, you might wind up using the wall to perform a throw or a rebound attack against a fall. It also depends on what weapons you might have in your hands at the time that varies each strike. For instance, you can wield a number of automatics, shotguns and other weapons. Shotguns may let you blast your enemy into the air, while automatic pistols will give you the chance to riddle them with bullets as they go flying. These attack moves can be bolstered with additional powers and combinations that you’ll unlock as the game progresses, allowing even more destructive combinations against your targets. However, you’ll need just about every single trick you have available to you if you hope to defeat any one of the Agents thrown at you, much less the large number of Agents that start coming after you in later levels. Aside from the surprisingly deep combat system, you’ll wind up handling a number of other gameplay elements, including a mix of puzzles and combat and a shooting “mini-stage” with the chaingun on the helicopter from the first movie.
For a fighting game, the kinds of attacks you can unleash look particularly brutal when they’re triggered against the numerous SWAT officers, police and Agents that you’ll go against. What’s more, there’s a certain beauty in the acrobatic tumbles, flips and roles that Neo exhibits as he moves from one form to another in bullet time that makes the fighting look almost poetic in its motion. You can tell where a lot of additional attention was paid to make the combat system look exactly like the jaw dropping stunts from the films. Unfortunately, the fact that the combat is so strong makes the weaker moments of the game stand out like a sore thumb. For one, the puzzle elements that are scattered throughout the game are, for the most part, horrible. Not only do they detract from the combat scenes, but they also feel really disjointed. The Merovingian estate with the multiple paths at Escherian angles is the primary example of this, a sequence that just doesn’t work at all.
The combat isn’t flawless though, because there are a couple of hiccups that consistently pop up to cast a shadow on the impressive fighting. First of all, while you’ll have access to a number of firearms, it’s not the easiest thing to target the enemy you want in the midst of battle. In fact, it’s even harder to fight off groups of opponents by targeting a fire extinguisher or other explosive item because the lock seems to disregard the objects. What’s more, if you find yourself surrounded in the midst of a fistfight, you’re going to have a large amount of flailing going on as you try to trigger combos to clear a path, because Neo doesn’t necessarily focus on every person around him. The biggest problem here is that too many misses makes him dizzy for a few seconds, and it’s way too easy to have this happen in the middle of a combo.
Perhaps the most extreme thing that constantly pops up as a problem within the combat is the significant dip that the frame rate suffers when a large number of enemies are onscreen or when a lot of the environment is being destroyed thanks to gunfire or explosions. The destructive environs can look phenomenal; in fact the lobby sequence looks spot on with that of the film. However, the crawl can be so significant that actually leaping into bullet time can sometimes speed things up a bit. This is solely attributable to the fact that the game is stretching the processing power of the PS2 to the max by tracking every single particle, bullet and object on screen, although you’ll notice the same problem with the Xbox version. Considering that the character models themselves are extremely low resolution to get thirty or more character models actively fighting onscreen at the same time, you’d think that the game would perform better than it does. Instead, you’ve got a situation where the generic, almost expressionless faces of the game characters coupled with the technical issues messes with the game significantly. Oh, and did I mention that the camera sucks? More often than not the camera will pan around and imbed itself in a wall, making it impossible to see who’s attacking you at any given moment. This isn’t directed by the action, but by some logic that the game decides on its own which is completely infuriating and something that constantly forces you to re-orient the camera.
Sound is much better that the visuals thankfully. Led by Lawrence Fishburne, who happens to be the only cast member lending his voice to the project, the soundalikes do a pretty decent job of capturing the tone of the actors themselves. However, it can be an odd mix when you’ve been listening to imitators and all of a sudden stumble into the edited film cutscene footage that has the actual actor’s voices. The sound effects sound like they’ve been pulled directly from the movie and sound great, so if you have the volume cranked up you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between the movie and the game, but you’re not necessarily going to hear a soundtrack that matches up.
Overall, the Path of Neo is a decent game, and one that goes a long way towards making amends for Enter The Matrix. However, a large number of technical issues and some combat flaws, along with a number of less than stellar puzzle mechanics make this a game for hardcore Matrix fans or some martial arts action buffs instead of for everyone.